The secret garden, revealed

There's just one drawback to the Nature Classroom nestled behind the University of South Carolina's Children's Center.

The Eden-like space is open only to kids and teachers from the Children's Center — oldsters have to admire the picturesque preserve from behind a fence. Then again, maybe that exclusivity is what gives this outdoor classroom its charm: a place just for kids to absorb nature's lessons.

"We always go there with a purpose," says Tonya Johnston, a classroom teacher at the Children's Center, which partners with the College of Education to provide educational services for about 200 children. "Sometimes we go to observe and explore. Sometimes we go to compare what's blooming now with what was happening a few weeks ago."

These days, there is plenty of blooming on the quarter-acre site, and that's largely thanks to Hillary McDonald and Don McInnes, two volunteer master gardeners who have been toiling there for the past four years. In that time, they've led a transformation of the wedge-shaped lot, planting scores of perennial flowers, trees and shrubs. A grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission provided resources for some plantings and creation of a dry creek bed with enormous river rocks. More than 100 volunteers have assisted McDonald and McInnes, removing weeds, broken glass and trash in the early days of the project and later helping out with planting the diverse landscape. Columbia Green, a nonprofit group that promotes beautification through landscaping, gardening, education and conservation, provided two grants, volunteers and planted sycamore trees that line Rocky Branch Creek near the Nature Classroom.

The end result is a wondrous hillside space with curving, stair-stepped trails, two informal gathering places for children and their teachers, a decorative wooden bridge and an unusual water feature.

"When we first started, there was a boggy area where water seeped to the surface," says McDonald, a university alumna and now-retired grants coordinator from the Darla Moore School of Business. "Don built a clever aqueduct with plastic piping he found on the site that captures some of that water and drips it into watering cans."

Kids from the Children's Center are enthralled with the natural watering system and have become careful garden tenders, as well.

"They love to water the plants out there, and they understand if they step on a plant, it will injure it," Johnston says.

It's hoped that the Nature Classroom will help generations of children to learn lessons about nature's rhythms and soak up their first exposure to the natural sciences, while developing a lifelong appreciation of the great outdoors.

"I'm hoping this will inspire them to be good stewards of the Earth," says Johnston.

Learn more

The UofSC College of Education is training tomorrow's teachers and educational leaders. To learn how you can support their efforts, visit Carolina's Promise.

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